Profile: George Siasoco
I was born in Boston, and then six months later my dad decided to go back to the Philippines, where I lived for 18 years—until political events forced my family to immigrate to the United States. I went straight to the University of Michigan and, after doing undergraduate work in history, decided to do a master’s in Southeast Asian studies. I wanted eventually to go back to the Philippines and teach there, but after two years I got burned out and decided to do something else. Since I had done a lot of volunteering in high school and college, one of my friends suggested I join the Peace Corps.
Namibia, the country I would serve in, was perfect because it had just become independent from South Africa, and finding out what conditions were like in a country emerging from colonialism tied in with my academic studies.
The first thing my mother said in response to my plan was: “Oh, we don’t know anyone there—why do you want to go there?” Being Filipino, we’re always trying to network with other Filipinos, and they wanted to make sure I would be taken care of. My parents were very supportive for the most part.
I grew up in a tropical environment, so it was a big shock to me when I realized that Namibia was a desert. On the bus ride from the airport to the main capital, I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be here for two years, and it’s so hot!” But eventually you get used to these things, and I quite enjoyed it; it was very scenic.
I was a ninth-grade math and science teacher, but I also taught all the other subjects, including soccer, depending on whether or not the other teachers were present. The school was in transition from Afrikaans to English, but most of the teachers taught in the local language, which was a disadvantage for the kids. With me, they had to learn English because I didn’t know how to speak Afrikaans. (Volunteers got training in a local language instead.)
The best thing about being in Namibia was the opportunity to teach students who were very disadvantaged by the system and be able to turn that around. When I first got to my school, math was totally de-emphasized. A lot of kids had memorized addition and multiplication, but they didn’t understand what they were learning and how it could be applied. I broke it down into steps, and they realized math can actually be fun. Before I came, most of the kids were failing in math. After my first year, there was a huge leap: Instead of just 10 percent, 70 to 80 percent of the kids were passing.
The biggest challenge was the disarray in the school—the administration didn’t care very much about discipline, and it was a constant effort to get my kids to sit down and learn. School started at 7 a.m. and ended at noon. But by around 11 a.m., the teachers would stop teaching and leave their classes, and before you knew it, the whole school was a free-for-all.
At first the kids were scared of me because they thought I would do kung fu stuff. Then they would come up to me all the time and say, “Teach me karate, teacher.” (There were a lot of gangs, and they thought they’d have an advantage if I taught them karate.) They were surprised to find out I was an American because previous Volunteers had been black or white but not Asian. There were two other Peace Corps Volunteers in the house I was living in—one white and one black—so we were like the United Nations. It was great that people who had experienced racism in their own country could point to us and say, “Hey, look at them: They’re from different races and they can all live together.” People would always ask us about the States and what it was like having all these different races dealing with one another. In fact, some Afrikaners would say, “You’re one to tell us that racism is bad and apartheid was bad; back in the ’60s, your country was doing the same thing.” We’d respond, “Well, that was back in the ’60s—look at us now: I’m Asian and she’s black and he’s white, and we’re fine.”
The experiences I’ve had in the Peace Corps have been very touching professionally and personally. You really get to see what you’re worth. You can deal with anything in the world if you get through those two years. I’ve learned to be calmer about things. In the face of a lot of stress, I remember how it was back in Africa, when I had no control over anything. I would just raise up my hands and say, “You know what, I’m going to read my book right now. I did my best today and I will try again tomorrow.” I don’t think I would have gotten that perspective anywhere else.
The Namibia group that I was in had one of the largest contingents of Asian Americans in Africa. There were 10 of us and our director was also Asian American. (We had great dinners when we got together and cooked!). It was a tremendous opportunity to showcase our diversity. But ultimately, whether you’re Asian American, African American or whatever seems to me incidental. It all boils down to what you do and the quality of your work.
What I found out from my experience is that I like working in international development, so I plan to go back to school and get a degree in public policy. In the future, though, I might still try for a Ph.D. in history.
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